This article grows out of a lecture I gave one Saturday afternoon for Hong Kong churches on how to listen to sermons. Quite often, people are very critical of their pastors’ preaching, but I like to take a different perspective to talk about the responsibility of both sides in the process of listening. My starting point is the Bible. The act of listening can be divided into two emphases. The first has to do with the literal physical act of listening. The second has to do with both spiritual and intellectual comprehension (since the two should not be so different). Although I’m never felt comfortable with dichotomous division of the human being, the essay below is borrowing the concept mainly for emphasis and to make a point.
Physical Aspects of Listening
Listening is a physical act. Within Nehemiah, the words “read” and “listen” repeat many times, denoting a communication process between the reader and the receiver. As a physical act, listening is also related to other physical aspects in life. In Ex. 19.14-15, 20-22, the physical preparation of the people precedes the listening to the Ten Commandments in Ex. 20. There was a whole series of rituals that takes place before the spoken word was given. Within Exodus 19, three concepts surface in preparation for listening to the word. Ex. 19.14-15 talks about consecration of the people. Ex. 19.20-24 sets physical limitation for where everything should take place. Ex. 19.22 also talks of consecrating the priests. In other words, both the people and the leaders need to make physical preparation before listening.
When looking at the physical aspect of listening, here are some important concepts we must pay attention to. Let me first talk about the responsibility of the listener before discussion the responsibility of the preacher. First, a lot of the descriptions of listening are corporate. This is an important concept because so often, listening is reduced to the act of a singular individual. The corporate listening implies that people need to work under the same authority of God. They’re not just going to be lone rangers in application but to work together in community with other obedient believers. In the Christian church, the corporate preparation includes participation in singing. Yet, there are many who only rush to the service on time in order to listen to a sermon. Many such listeners are consumers who want nothing more than to “get something out of the service.” However, a person who is aware of the corporate dimension of worship will not miss every part of the service because the sermon is only a part of the service and not the entire service. Singing and putting oneself in a worshipful state helps with listening.
Second, preparation is intentional and not accidental. In Exodus, these Israelites did not happen to be in good condition to listen to the word being read. They had to go through a lot of steps in order to prepare. Intentional preparation is important because many modern listeners lack preparation when it comes to listening to sermons. As a family man, I have come to value preparation of children for services. Our modern services have so focused on age appropriateness that we no longer welcome children to our services, despite the fact that our Savior also had children among his listeners. The excuse that children are too active and cannot sit politely shows more about our perspective of children than what God wants. A step I find helpful is to make sure that tiny kids are fed well before going to church. Hungry children do not sit well. Parents can also do well to prepare the children the night before, especially children who are older. Preparation can be done through prayer with the children the night before. Parents can further encourage children to pray out loud for their pastors for the next day. Some teens are prone to stay up playing on the internet. It is hard for parents to control such habits, unless the household is marked with discipline from top to bottom. If parents would sleep a little earlier as an example to their children, the entire family would be in better physical condition to listen to the sermon.
Another important preparatory step is the setting of limitation for listeners. For children, if they bring their electronic devices, they should at least have them off during services. Many parents are not courageous enough to put their foot down on this bad habit. The fact is, electronic devices distract rather than help with listening. Some churches go as far as giving drawing sheets for children in the pew to color or to encourage listeners to tweet about what they just heard without equally encouraging them to be slow to listen and slow to tweet in order not to interpret the sermon out of context. The message such churches send is that children can have an option of either participate or do something else, and that adults can respond to bits and pieces of the sermon they pick out and respond to them even though the response is totally outside of the realm of proper interpretation. Such a message will become a hindrance rather than help in preparing the children physically to listen.
What implications do the discussions above have for preachers? Preachers should understand that the listeners are not always physically ready to listen. That’s just a fact. In order for preachers to help with connecting with the physical aspect of listening, his voice must not drone on and on in monotone. Most preachers could work on more variation of both the voice and pace. Equally important is to provide continuity between the singing time and other parts of the service with the sermon so that people will know that their physical participation is of utmost importance. Since listening to sermon is a physical act, the physical presence of the preacher is also very important. There are some preachers who rarely gesture. Such preachers could do much better in creating more body language. Visual appeal is physical. It will draw attention of the audience. Another pet peeve of mine has to do with the timeliness of sermons. Many Chinese churches have a strange view of time as the preacher almost always goes overtime. People have limitations. They cannot listen to overtime sermon week after painful week, especially if the preacher is not an outstanding communicator. The listener does not only get bored but in some case gets quite hungry. The preacher needs to understand that not everyone is as spiritual as he is and that some people (especially those who have health problems) need to eat.
Intellectual and Spiritual Aspects of Listening
When looking at the Reformed tradition, there are several means of grace: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and preaching. The centrality of preaching is only highlighted by the central placement of the pulpit in a Reformed church. Especially important is the preaching aspect because it addresses both hearts and minds. The above discussion already demonstrates the importance of physical aspect of listening without which any intellectual and spiritual sense cannot happen. We must now address the art of listening beyond mere physical act. We must address the non-physical part.
First, when listening to a sermon, the listener is informed by the content. No matter how much we want to make a sermon an inspirational piece of public discourse, the content in it informs so that any inspiration can result. Rom. 10.16-18 talks a little about how the gospel is transmitted. This is an important point to dwell on. Quite often, people in church, especially churches that encourage the consumer mentality, do not listen actively. They do not want anything “too deep” but the entire sermon must be funny. This is a plague among evangelicals at this point. To be informed about the truth means one has to intellectually engage the sermon. This means the brain is actively absorbing and processing what is being said.
Second, Neh. 8.7-9, talks about understanding and Rev. 2-3 often repeats “He who has an ear …” Such sayings are not talking about physical listening, but about understanding. Understanding also requires the listener to track what is being said. The preacher speaks in order for the listener to understand. Once again, I’m talking about active listening. A “discerning” listening is much needed all the time. When listeners hear the sermon, they can either accept one hundred percent of what is said, or keep their bibles open so that they can track the context of scripture to see whether they understand the true message. This requires the listeners to bring their own Bibles or at least have a pew Bible available to him. Many have decided to use electronic edition of the Bible. This is not a great idea. I have tested my listeners who have electronic Bibles in their cell phones. They can track about an average of 7 verses at a time. 7 verses do not give enough context for good understanding.
Third, the true spiritual listener must respond. Neh. 8.5-6, 18; 9.1, show the response of the people upon hearing God’s word. The spoken word demands some kind of change. Responses are important. Let me suggest that every listener jots down one point in a spiritual journal somewhere for the Sunday service. Jot down the point that sticks out and mark out an action plan or change of mind. People would progress so much if they jot down 52 points from the 52 weeks of preaching they listen to in a year. If in addition to the 52 lessons, the listener also writes down 52 action plans. I think the listener’s life would change.
The above discussion implicates the preacher as well. I have read numerous studies in reputable universities about teaching and PowerPoint. It is currently in vogue to use PowerPoint for every teaching endeavor. This fad will soon fade as soon as the user realizes that it is not always as effective as its creators’ boasts. One study actually shows that lecture PowerPoint slides with too much information is 15% less in effectiveness of informing. The reason is that the screen of any kind is originally used for entertainment and not for reflection. As quick as the PowerPoint slide switches, people cannot reflect and listen all at once. Preachers may want to rethink the strategy of using PowerPoint. If it has to be used, less is better. Too much information would mean “no” information. I always challenge my audience to open the Bible to look at context, even though my church may shoot up the verses in PowerPoint format. This will encourage active and discerning listening. If we must use PowerPoint slide for bible passages, we must also inform our audience that the slides are for unbelievers who can’t flip fast enough in their Bibles. For believers, the printed text of the Bible should be the standard, not PowerPoint. Preachers must understand that we create our own listener culture. Our usage of media tool will be part of that creation.
Preachers can help listeners in the understanding of the sermon by strong transition and clear points. The “pointless” sermon will not become anything helpful to the listener. The sermon must have a focal point and that point needs repetition. If a preacher makes clear one point of preaching, his audience will not mistaken the point for something else. The successful preacher can test out his congregation one or two weeks after and see if they get his point in the sermon. If they still remember the single point, then the preacher has communicated successfully.
Conclusion: What Can Both Sides Do About It?
When we look at the art of listening, it requires strong interaction between the preacher and listeners. Physical hearing cannot happen when both sides fail to plan. Spiritual hearing also demands the listener to prepare to act. The preacher still needs to understand the strengths and weaknesses in electronic devices. Churches can prepare pew Bibles for people to at least read what is opened up for that Sunday. When we evaluate both the preacher and listeners, we come away knowing that sacrifice has to happen for both sides.